Review: Gordon Childe and the fatal lure of politics

Terry Irving, The fatal lure of politics: the life and thought of Vere Gordon Childe. Monash University Press 2020.

Vere Gordon Childe was born into a time of world-shattering events, arguably one of the most politically challenging periods of world history and, like so many, was radicalised by it. Mass strike waves, revolutions and defeats, the first successful workers’ revolution in Russia, alongside wars, Depression, the rise of fascism, the Cold War and McCarthyism and capitalism’s biggest boom period. He was an Australian left-wing Labor Party activist and then scathing critic of its reformism. A committed socialist, he was a follower of Marx and supporter of the Russian Revolution, though not the Bolsheviks. He followed his early political period with a stellar career as a prehistorian, revolutionising the interpretation of past societies through Marxist methodology.

All this has been captured by Terry Irving in this absorbing political biography of Childe. In the first section Irving recovers Childe’s political contribution to Australian politics, primarily within the ALP, followed by his critique, How Laboui Governs: A study of workers’ representation in Australia in 1923, his last major intervention in party politics. Irving then shows Childe’s continuity of socialist or historical materialist thought and method from his early political experiences, through his anti-war and later anti-fascist activities, to his many years as a revolutionising prehistorian and social theorist.

Irving begins with a detailed description of the formative years of Australian Labor, the organisational and theoretical ferment that swept through the party from its beginning. Arising from the major working-class defeats of the 1890s, including the maritime strike, had come the call for a party to represent workers in parliament, where workers would take power from the ruling class and run society themselves.

It was a politics which would attract many young activists such as Childe. By the 1910s Labor had won both federal and state government, accompanied by a rise in working-class combativity, which both encouraged support for Labor, but also threw up more left-wing alternatives. A number of the more militant unions and ALP members looked to stand their own candidates, form new social democratic parties, or join the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW). Ideas of One Big Union, socialism and challenges to accepted ideologies were swirling round in the mix, not just in Australia but around the world, with uprisings and strikes in cities across seven major countries in Europe and the Americas between 1911 and 1912.

The campuses, though still elite institutions, saw the stirrings of radicalism, with Sydney University forming a Socialist Society. Childe was radicalising too and even as he continued to support Labor, he was becoming increasingly disillusioned with the party in government. Labor, he wrote later, “instead of standing up boldly in defence of the one class that put them in power”, attacked workers and in the case of NSW Premier Jim McGowan, called on the public to assist the scabs against a gasworkers’ strike.[1]

These years were an important political prelude, preparing Childe for the major upheavals – war and revolution – that were about to explode on the world scene. In 1914 he headed to England, to a country at war, full of military propaganda, but also a growing anti-war movement. It was at Oxford that he was to embark on his first studies of archaeology that were to shape his future career in a discipline he played a significant role in revolutionising.

Arriving at the university he soon met left-wing activists, including guild socialist GDH Cole and soon to be close friend Ranjani Palme Dutt, a future leader of the British Communist Party. Here he deepened his left-wing politics, as Irving describes, with “the idea of the class war…firmly lodged in his mind” (pp76-77). He became involved in anti-war campaigns, opposing the increased censorship, conscription and other war-time controls, which led to a life-long surveillance by both British and Australian spy agencies.

Childe returned to Australia in October 1917 and launched into his second phase of involvement with the ALP, including as private secretary to NSW Labor Premier John Storey. He formulated an idea of a “genuine Labor government” which would enact progressive policies, “relying on organised militant unionism [through a] One Big Union for electoral and financial support, and in return protecting and extending worker control of production” (p173). This ideal, however, could never have been realised given the nature of a social-democratic party such as the ALP, which as Tom Bramble and Rick Kuhn note, adapted its program to what is acceptable to the capitalists and their state.[2] While Childe’s How Labour Governs pointed out the failures of Labor, how the party “offers [workers] no escape from capitalism” (p265), because of his political limitations, he had no solutions to reformism, no insight into the revolutionary role of the working class.[3]

As the political situation changed Childe’s political positions changed, ranging from supporting the IWW, through business cooperation with Labor, to worker control of state enterprises. Marxist historian Neil Faulkner provides the clearest framework for understanding Childe’s centrist political position. Centrists he explains, move “from reformism to revolutionary socialism in periods of radicalisation, retaining elements of both in their outlook and activity”. Childe “did not capitulate, but he was trapped in a political impasse by the contradictions of centrism”.[4] Though privately critical of Stalin from the 1930s, he did not lose faith in the Soviet Union as “a grand and hopeful experiment” until Khrushchev’s shock revelations and the invasion of Hungary in 1956 (p300).

Irving makes an extensive contribution to our understanding of early twentieth century Labor history and Childe’s continuity of a left-wing analysis throughout his life of opposition to imperialism, fascism, oppression and injustice, and his contribution to a historical materialist understanding of societies past. Childe, he shows, represents the hope of those early revolutionary years of the twentieth century, but also represents the many who could not break through the bounds of Stalinism and who were, ultimately, betrayed by it.

References

Bramble, Tom and Rick Kuhn 2011, Labor’s conflict: Big business, workers and the politics of class, Cambridge University Press.

Childe, Vere Gordon 1923, How Labour Governs: A study of workers’ representation in Australia. https://www.marxists.org/archive/childe/how-labor-governs/index.htm

Faulkner, Neil 2007, “Gordon Childe and Marxist archaeology”. International Socialism, 116, Autumn. http://isj.org.uk/gordon-childe-and-marxist-archaeology/

[1] Childe 1923.

[2] Bramble and Kuhn 2011, p10.

[3] Faulkner 2007.

[4] Faulkner 2007.

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